St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Friday, 27 January 2012

January 29 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Candlemas

January 29                  NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Candlemas

Texts: Malachi 3:1-5; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 22-40

Theme:  The proper name of today's celebration is The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, which is informative if not very catchy.  A more eccentric choice might be Spaghetti Junction, on the ground that so many different ways are coming together here that it's difficult to see a clear path ahead.  Perhaps "A Meeting of Opposites" might do, or, for those of a more classical bent, "Nunc Dimittis", if only to annoy the spell-check on my laptop.

Introduction.  Today's celebration completes this Christmas-Epiphany period of "revelation".  Again, we are informed in The Lectionary that "This is a principal feast and should not be displaced by any other celebration"; although we are then reminded that the actual date of the feast is 2 February, so we can leave it until then if we like!  But why is it so important as to rank with such feasts as The Baptism of the Lord, for example?  Perhaps because it has an air of "completing" the birth of Jesus:  born on Christmas Day, and circumcised and named on the 8th day, the final step is the "purification" of his mother on the 40th day.  [In that sense, this feast is more about Mary than it is about Jesus; and for that reason it is known in the Orthodox tradition as The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Our first lesson sets the tone in two ways.  First it speaks of the Lord coming to the temple; and secondly it emphasises that his coming has an unavoidable element of judgment about it.  The second lesson emphasises again that what we have been reflecting on over the last month or so is the birth of a human being: it is very important to the author of this Letter to the Hebrews to stress the humanity of Jesus.  Only if he were fully human (as well as fully divine) could he become our Great High Priest.  Only St Luke includes this episode in his gospel: the Christ Child has been acknowledged by the angels, the shepherds (the outcasts of society), and the Gentiles (represented by the Magi); and now he is acclaimed by representatives of the Jewish people in the form of Simeon and Anna.

Background.  As hinted in the first paragraph of the introduction above, the title of this feast is something of a misnomer, because there are in fact two ceremonial rites taking place here.  On the fortieth day after the birth of any child, male or female, firstborn or not, the mother would need to be ritually purified before she could rejoin the worshipping community.  We might want to pause there and think for a moment about what that says of the prevailing religious attitude towards childbirth: it was something 'unclean' requiring the exclusion of the woman from the community of faith until she had been rendered 'clean' again.  But it was also fortuitously in the interests of the new infant: we have a rather modern view of what the temple would have been like, anti-sceptic, quiet and peaceful like our modern-day holy places.  In fact, the temple was, in part, a slaughter-house, with all the noise, smells and pest problems associated with that – not at all a healthy place to which to bring a new-born baby.  Perhaps for that reason, if this were the only rite required (purification of the mother) it was not usual to bring the infant.

However, the law also required the firstborn male child to be formally consecrated or dedicated to the Lord, which, of course, required the presence of the child.  Hence Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus today.

It may be worthwhile to reflect today on what this whole ceremony tells us about our practice of baptising infants, in view of the fact that infant baptism is opposed by some parts of the Church (such as the Baptists).  We have (mercifully!) moved away from the idea that the mother needed "purifying" after childbirth [the Book of Common Prayer prescribed a service for this purpose called "The Churching of Women"]: the closest we come to that may be a lovely little rite called Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child", which is found on page 754 of the Prayer Book.  A prayer of thanksgiving for the preservation of the mother's life and health through pregnancy and labour is included in that service: see page 758 and the mother's own prayer on page 757.  But there is something of the idea of dedicating the child to God in our baptismal ceremony, and is some ways to mark the child with the sign of the cross can be seen as the Christian equivalent of circumcision.  We shouldn't push this argument too far, but on a day when we are noting the careful way in which the Holy Family is following the dictates of law and tradition it is helpful, perhaps, to see our own practises as rooted in that same tradition, albeit reinterpreted in the light of Christ.

The central idea for me in all this is precisely that: here we see the balance between the traditions of the past and openness to the news ways of God.  Once again I find myself coming back to that extraordinary verse in Isaiah: "Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing.  Now it springs up.  Do you not perceive it?"  Hold this in your mind as we once again gather with our Bishop to try to discern the way ahead for our parish and our congregations: more of the same, or a new thing?  And the truly wonderful thing in today's gospel passage on this point is that the two with the most investment in the past and the status quo are the two who immediately discern the new thing that God is doing in their presence.  Any other observer would have seen yet another couple of parents bringing yet another wee baby into the temple – ho, hum – ya-ya-ya!  But these two old folk (strictly, we are not told how old Simeon is, but he sounds ready to go!) see no less than the Lord's salvation, the hope of Israel, the promises of God fulfilled, etc.

But not in any "ah, isn't he a bonny wee chap" sentimental sort of way.  They foresee the pain that lies ahead for Mary, and the divisive effect this child is destined to have when he grows to manhood and begins to carry out his mission.

Malachi.  It seems that people have been noting that evil people were getting away with their crimes scot-free, and asking "where is the God of justice?"  [See 2:17]  This passage is God's response.  He promises a messenger to prepare the way for him, and then he himself will come to the temple.  But before they get too excited at that prospect, they should know that his coming will bring a time of judgment.  The faithful will undergo a period of refining (purifying), and the unrighteous will be rejected.    Included in that latter class are those who take advantage of widows, orphans, workers, and aliens; as well as sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers.  (Despite the impression sometimes given by Christian preachers, not all sin is sexual in nature!)

Taking It Personally.

·        How important to your faith is the Old Testament?  Do you find tradition interesting and helpful, or is it something you are inclined to get rid of?  Do you welcome change?

·        Is it helpful in your understanding of Christ to see him is the light of Old Testament prophecy, or do you see this as a case of re-writing history ex post facto?

·        What do you make of the list of people who will face judgment in verse 5?  Do you agree that the Church is more inclined to condemn sexual sin and rather too wary of condemning social and economic sins of the kind mentioned here?

·        Are you naturally sympathetic to the workers' point of view in industrial disputes, or do your instincts tend to lie with the employers?  Are you sympathetic to refugees, boat-people and immigrants, or do you favour tighter border control.  Are these the sorts of issues the Church should be involved in or not?

Hebrews.  Scholars still debate the authorship of this Letter; but whoever wrote it, the issue of Jesus' true humanity was obviously a burning issue.  The author takes every opportunity to stress that Jesus was fully human in every way except that he did not sin.  In today's passage he stresses that Jesus was like us with flesh and blood (he had a real body, not just an appearance of one as some early heretics maintained), and he suffered temptation just as we do.  All this was necessary to enable Jesus to overcome the power of death, to atone for our sin, and to become "a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God".

Taking It Personally.

·        Spend some time imagining Jesus as a child?  How realistic is your image of Jesus in his childhood years?  Is he a typical boy, always on the go, getting up to mischief, getting his clothes dirty and turning up late for meals?  Or is he perfect in every way?

·        Read Hebrews 5:1-10.  Does that help to fill out your image of Jesus?  Notice the reference in verse 8 to Jesus learning obedience through suffering.  What do you make of that? 

·        The author also stresses that Jesus is "for us" (as well as one of us).  He came not to help angels but "the descendants of Abraham".  Can you recall a recent instance when you felt Jesus helped you?  Did you give thanks?

·        What help would you like from Jesus at this time?  Now ask him.

Luke.   Once again we have an example of how meticulous St Luke can be in dealing with details.  He alone of the gospel writers records that Jesus was named and circumcised on the eighth day; and now he alone records the arrival of the Holy Family at the Temple on the fortieth day after the birth.  Mary has observed the prescribed period of purification – a  woman was 'unclean' for 40 days after giving birth – and must now be ritualistically made clean so that she can once again re-join the worshipping community.  But as Jesus is Mary's firstborn male child he must also be brought to the temple to be consecrated to the Lord.  Luke even records the sacrifice to be offered by Mary and Joseph, which scholars delight in pointing out that it was at the rate prescribed for poor parents, "a pair of doves or two young pigeons".  Onto the stage comes Simeon, a resident of Jerusalem, who we are told was "righteous and devout" and had been "waiting for the consolation of Israel".  We always assume that he was an old man, although the Scriptures do not say so.  He represents wisdom and prophecy – an elder upon whom the Holy Spirit rested.  He has been promised that he will not die until he has seen the Lord's Christ.  He has come to the temple at the prompting of the Holy Spirit and recognises in the infant Jesus the fulfilment of that promise.    He sees in Jesus the divine agent of judgment, and cautions Mary of painful times ahead for her.  His words are seconded by Anna, a devout widow of prayer, whose age is given (she's 84).  Luke stresses again the Holy Family's compliance with the Law (verse 39); and then notes that a period of growth follows for Jesus in all aspects of his humanity, physical, mental, spiritual and social.

Taking It Personally.

·     Notice the stress Luke places on compliance with the Law, and following proper procedure.  Even the Holy family is not immune from it.  How do you feel about that?  What analogy might we draw with Church practice and procedure today?

·     Reflect on the openness of Simeon and Anna.  Simeon can depart in peace now that Christ has come.  How might this passage guide us as we reflect on future directions in our lives and in our Church?

·     This passage is a good one for praying with the imagination.  Place yourself in the temple as an observer.  Can you see the baby?  How does Mary look?  Is Joseph taking a keen interest?  What reaction do they have when Simeon takes the baby into his arms?  What do you make of Simeon and Anna?  Are you inclined to dismiss them as two old fuddy-duddies?  Does the baby make any noise or do anything? 

·     Ponder verse 40 for some time.  What does it tell you about Jesus the human being?  What does it tell you about growing up in Christ?


Parish Meeting, St John's, 31 January at 7pm.

For the   Parish  Meeting: to which All parishioners are invited with Bishop Kelvin at St. John's Waikouaiti on Tuesday 31st January at 7pm. Copies of a 'Discussion Paper' compiled by Roger, available this Sunday.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Roger's Reflections, Sunday 22 January

January 22                              NOTES FOR REFLECTION            

Texts:  Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-32; Mark 1:14-20

Theme:  "The Call of God (Part II)", perhaps?  Or "The Direct Experience – Repeat Broadcast".  (This is the season for endless repeats on T.V., so why not in the Church?)  To avoid being that silly I'm going with "Now is the Time".  An alternative might be "All Change", where "all" means everyone and everything, such is the true meaning of repentance.

Introduction.  Much like last week, we have the old and the new way through which God speaks to the people.  Jonah is a prophet, albeit in this case a reluctant or even rebellious one.  He is given by God a very clear message for the Ninevites, calling upon them to repent.  They are, of course, Gentiles, so I guess we are to understand this passage in the context of  the revelation to the Gentiles.  At the second time of asking, Jonah delivers the message and it bears fruit: the people of Nineveh repent.  But again, we are left to wonder what, if anything, happened next: did they grow in their new-found faith, or return to their old ways?  St Paul, in three short verses, tells us what should happen next.  There should be a complete re-prioritising of everything, particularly of our values.  Nothing is now more important than our faith.  The gospel passage shows this extraordinary change in the specific examples of the fishermen.  They abandon the means of their livelihood and their families to "follow him", wherever and whatever for, they know not.  Not a bad description of the meaning of faith, really.

Background.  Once again we have readings that speak to us of a new stage of spiritual development.  We might easily overlook that simple, apparently inconsequential remark that Jesus makes at the start of this passage: "The time has come."  So important is this expression to Mark that he makes them the first words Jesus utters in his gospel.  The expression surely implies that there has been a preceding period of waiting, that something important is now happening, and that the timing of the new happening is not accidental.  After everything else that has happened in the past, including the stuttering false starts surrounding the birth and early years of Jesus' life, this is the real deal!

Jonah forms an interesting background to this story: we recall that when Jesus was asked for a sign in one of his many disputes he referred them to the "sign of Jonah" (Matthew 16:1-5), usually taken to mean that, just as Jonah was three days in the belly of the great fish before being coughed up to a new life, so Jesus would be entombed for three days before being raised to new life.  Here, the link is the message of repentance: just as God sent Jonah to call the people of Nineveh to turn from their sinful ways, so now Jesus proclaims the same message to the Jews and to the whole world.  It is important to read the little Book of Jonah non-historically: although it is traditionally treated as a prophetic book, it really belongs with the wisdom literature.  It is a short, and brilliantly written parable, showing human nature in all our cussedness, and lack of empathy for those we consider our enemies.  We are reminded, perhaps, of James and John who offered to Jesus to call down fire from heaven on a Samaritan village that did not welcome them: Luke 9:51-56.  (Or John Cleese as a wonderfully demented nun slapping a recalcitrant schoolgirl across the face while yelling "God is love, you dolt!  What is he?  God is love!")  Compare Jonah with the Good Samaritan: he wouldn't have walked by on the other side – he would have run!

So the time has come, but for what?  And Jesus' cryptic answer is that the kingdom has drawn near.  Over the centuries many different understandings have been put forward as to what this expression means.  Is it to suggest (as many of his time assume) that Jesus was to throw out the Roman overlords and establish in Israel a theocracy with him as ruler?  Or is the kingdom of the heavenly realms only, to be entered on death?  The 'answer' as always is far more complex than either of those options would suggest.  In keeping with the general approach I have been putting forward in these notes for two or three months now, I find a helpful way of trying to grasp what this is about is to interpret the term "kingdom of God" (or "Kingdom of Heaven") as this new stage of spiritual development that is now to be made possible through Jesus Christ, the essence of which is direct communication with God through Christ.

So here is our gospel reading we no longer hear a prophet speaking about God: instead, we have God, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, speaking directly to those he encounters.  We are told here of four who immediately responded positively, with such dramatic effect; but, of course, the gospels are full of people whose reactions were the complete opposite.  That remains true to this day.     

Jonah.  This little book is a wonderful study of human nature!  First, we must recognise that Jonah is spiritually open to God.  There is no suggestion that Jonah did not hear God, or did not understand what God was calling him to do.  He understood only too clearly.  God was calling him to go to Nineveh "and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me".  Jonah was not the first prophet to receive a calling he didn't want.  Even the great Moses tried to persuade God to send Aaron instead of him to Egypt.  Nor was Jonah's unwillingness based on fear for his own safety, or of a lack of ability to fulfil the task.  He was afraid that Nineveh would heed the message and repent; and if it did, Jonah was even more afraid that God would prove to be something of a wishy-washy liberal instead of a paid-up member of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, and forgive the whole city.  However, a near-death experience and a miraculous rescue can have an effect on even the most recalcitrant mind; and so, when the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, he obeyed.  Notice (and enjoy!) the subtle little detail in verses 3 and 4:  Nineveh is a great city, requiring 3 days to traverse.  So Jonah has not reached the city centre when he delivers his message.  He is obeying, but to the least possible degree that he thinks he can get away with!  But, alas!  It is enough to fulfil God's purposes!



Taking It Personally.

  • Read the whole book – it's very short.  Reflect on Jonah's character.  When is he most like you, and when is he least like you?
  • Have you had an experience when your life was seriously in danger?  Did that change your outlook, and has that change been permanent?
  • Have you ever felt God prompting you to do something you didn't want to do?  Did you take evasive action, comply grudgingly, or comply wholeheartedly?
  • Do you want wrongdoers to suffer for their wrongs, or are you more likely to pray for their forgiveness?
  • Notice how honest Jonah is with God – especially in chapter 4.  Can you be as honest and direct in your prayers?

Corinthians.  This extraordinary little passage calls into question our basic attitudes, assumptions and values.  All are turned on their heads by 'the Christ event'.  Spiritual writers (and many psychologists) talk of a false self and a true Self.  The false self is the one we naturally develop to help us navigate through the ordinary circumstances of what we take to be our separate, individual lives.  It is only when we become aware that there is more to us than that – that we can transcend that little self and become tuned into the Self that we call God – that everything changes for us.  We discover that everything has only a relative value, surpassed by the Ultimate Value of the One True Divine Reality (a.k.a. God).  It seems to me that this is what St Pal is trying to help us grasp in these few verses.  To move from one stage of spiritual development to the next means that "this world in its present form is passing away".  Remember that he is writing post-Pentecost: the Holy Spirit is now available to all, not just to the specially chosen anointed few.  That's the game-changer, as we sometimes say today.

Taking It Personally.

  • To what extent does your Christian faith shape your attitudes, assumptions and values?
  • Does your faith give you a different perspective – are you more "philosophical" about things that go wrong?  Do you consciously call upon your faith to help you keep a sense of proportion?
  • Are you engrossed in "the things of the world" or do you "hang loose" to them?  Is there anything you would not give up for your faith?

Mark.  As I noted last week, there are differences between the various gospel accounts of the calling of the first disciples.  So this is Mark's version.  It starts at the Sea of Galilee, such a central feature in his narrative.  It is unclear whether Jesus had already met these men, or if they knew him by reputation only.  Most of the comments made on last week's gospel apply again here.  In particular, note the unconditional and unquestioning response.  No questions, no ifs and buts, just immediate obedience, despite the enormous cost.  They are walking away from their families and their means of earning a living.  And for what?  To follow Jesus of Nazareth who promises to make them "fishers of men and women", whatever that is supposed to mean.  Notice the sense of urgency, emphasised in this passage: "the time has come" (v.15); "at once" (v.18); and "without delay" (v.20).

Taking It Personally.

·         Suppose you read a contemporary account of this story in the paper?  Would your suspicions be roused?  Would your cynicism?  What would you make of four fishermen simply dropping everything and clearing off?   Shades of Scientology, brain-washing, de-programming etc. Here?

·         Put yourself in Zebedee's shoes.  How would you feel if your two sons simply walked out on you (and the family business) in front of the hired men who may well have been enjoying seeing Zebedee's rather public humiliation.

·         Looking back, have there been any radical breaks in your life, where you have suddenly changed course?

Saturday, 14 January 2012


January 15                              NOTES FOR REFLECTION                               

Texts:  1 Samuel 3:1-10; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

Theme:  A number of possibilities this week: the more obvious ones would be "Discipleship" or "The Call of God".  I'm going with "The Direct Experience": with this reading we have finished (for now) with intermediaries, prophets, wise men, etc.  Now people directly encounter God in Jesus Christ and their whole world changes for ever.

Introduction.  Our first reading is a bridge from the former stage of spiritual development to the new one.  Young Samuel (probably about 12 years old now as he is referred to as a boy instead of a child) represents the spiritually open but undeveloped stage: he hears God calling him but does not recognise God's voice.  He still needs someone to "translate" his experience for him.  In our gospel reading St John is taking us to the next stage.  He has just written of the intermediary stage (John the Baptist directed two of his disciples to Jesus), and now he has two more people directly encountering Jesus and becoming disciples through a personal call on their lives.  St Paul's contribution is to spell out the consequences of accepting that call.  It is a call to freedom "from" AND a freedom "for".  The Corinthians have grasped the first point, but not the second.

Background.  Through Advent, Christmas, and the Epiphany we have been talking about the way in which most of us come into a faith through the ministry of others.  Few, if any, have a direct experience of God before they have some understanding of who God might be.  I have suggested that we understand this in terms of some sort of spiritual evolutionary process, for humanity in general and for individual human beings.  We need to develop our spiritual faculties in the same way that we develop our physical and mental ones.  This sort of understanding, I think, helps to explain why many people (including members of our own families and circle of friends) just "don't get it".  Like young Samuel they do not yet know the Lord and so are quite unaware of his presence with them.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son...  The opening words of the Letter to the Hebrews puts this perfectly.  This is the stage we are at in our gospel reading this morning.  John the Baptist is the last of the great prophets through whom God has spoken to his people.  Now God is speaking directly to by his Son.  What difference does that make?

In recent weeks I have commented on the (somewhat surprising) fact that all the drama around the conception and birth of Jesus does not seem to have had any lasting impact.  Once the initial excitement was over, the shepherds and the magi disappeared back into obscurity: even Mary and Elizabeth become invisible for 30 years at least.  John, the child who leapt in his mother's womb at the sound of Mary's voice, now tells us that he would not have known who Jesus was had the angel not told him to watch for the one on whom the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove.  And until that happens – until Jesus is baptised – nothing very much happens.  With that event the new spiritual stage is launched – the kingdom of God, as small as a mustard seed, is sown on the earth and begins to grow.

And those who see and hear and experience are changed for ever.  This time "it takes".  This is manifested in two ways.  First, in the responses of those who are called to follow Jesus:  even more than Mary, their response is one of unquestioning willingness.  They do not ask where they are going if they follow him, or what it will involve, or how long they will be away.  They accept the call immediately.

And they do something else.  They find someone else and bring that person to Jesus.  Thus. Andrew brings Peter, and Philip finds Nathaniel.  The good news spreads by being passed on within family and other social relationships.  And let's be clear: they bring the people to Jesus.  This is not a regression to the former "intermediary" stage.  Andrew does not teach Peter about Jesus, he brings him to Jesus for Peter to have his own experience of Christ – to see for himself and make up his own mind.  The same is true of Philip bringing Nathaniel.

Passages like this obviously provide the foundation for our "doctrine of call".  Again, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews has some useful things to say to us about this whole idea.  Speaking of the office of high priest, he says, "No one takes this honour upon himself: he must be called by God..."  See Hebrews 5:1-6.  (According to him, even Jesus was "called" by God to be his Son.)  We need to think seriously about the implications of this.  In our desperate desire to be inclusive (and to fill gaps on rosters!) we tend to call for volunteers.  Jesus does not.  There were hundreds, and probably thousands, of men involved in the fishing industry around Lake Galilee at that time.  Jesus chose 4 of them. 

And we have only to think of the immediate practical consequences of accepting that call to see that it could not work on any other basis.  These fishermen abandoned their means of livelihood and walked out on their families.  That was their calling.  In every age some are still called to such a life.  But the vast majority of Christians are called to live out their lives of faith in their ordinary business, family and social circumstances.  Either we need to widen the term "discipleship" to include such lives of faith, or we need to find a different term for what is a very different calling.

Samuel.  Samuel has been brought up in the temple.  He has witnessed the work of the priests and the worship of the people every day of his life.  Yet this whole experience has not yet led to spiritual growth.  In verse 1 we learn that this is not a spiritually enlightened time generally: In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.  Perhaps verses 2 and 3 also are to be understood in this spiritual sense:  the old priest's eyes were becoming so weak he could barely see.  But there is still hope: the lamp of God had not yet gone out.

Be all that as it may, one thing is clear: Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord.  The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.  Thus, when God called out to Samuel, Samuel heard the voice, but assumed it must be Eli calling him: a good example of the logical brain blocking a spiritual experience.  Eli becomes the mirror image: old and near blind though he may be, his brain has been tuned over the years to recognise spiritual realities.  Knowing that he did not call Eli he realised it must be God calling the boy.

Taking It Personally.

·        Have you ever heard God calling you or speaking to you?  How would you describe the experience?

·        If not, would you like to?  Why?

·        Looking back, were you more open or less open to spiritual experiences in your childhood than you are now?

·        Is there anybody who has been "an Eli" for you – someone who could help you to see or understand something that might otherwise have passed you by?

Corinthians.  What a wonderful bunch these early Corinthian Christians must have been!  Scholars generally assume that the phrases in quotation marks are taken by Paul out of a letter written to him, and to which he is replying.  They have assumed that if God loves them unconditionally and forgives them all their sins, it doesn't matter what they do in their ordinary lives.  Corinth was famous for its immoral lifestyle, and it seems that many of these early converts had not abandoned that lifestyle.  Hence "everything is permissible for me" is their motto.  Notice the wonderfully wise tack Paul takes in response.  Today, all too many Christians believe in a "holy legalism" – preferably backed by Parliamentary laws.  "Thou shall not do this that or the other thing.  Paul does not go down this track.  He doesn't deny that all things are permissible, but points out that some things are actually harmful.  They have consequences.  We hear much today of "victimless crimes": but, says St Paul, to indulge in such activities is to victimise ourselves.  We are not souls who happen to inhabit physical bodies for a while.  We are embodied persons in whom the Holy Spirit of God resides.  Therefore honour God with your bodies.  [There is an echo of this in our marriage liturgy where, on the exchange of rings, one party says to the other "with my body I honour you".  See, for example, page 784 of the Prayer Book.]

Taking It Personally.

·     Reflect on your body, and how you treat it.  Are you kind to it, giving it only the right type and amount of food, enough exercise but not too much, and attending promptly to any medical needs it may have?

·     In your care of your body are you motivated by simple commonsense, or do you see it as part of your spiritual practice?  What does it mean to you that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?

·     When was the last time you gave thanks to God for your body, for its wonderful abilities, and its amazing complexity?  Why not do that right now?

John.  There are certain marked differences in the way in which each of the gospel writers record the calling of the first few disciples, but also much common ground.  The clearest feature is the unconditional nature of the call and of the response.  John chooses to emphasise the way in which the good news spreads: in a sense, Jesus (in this account) did not call Peter: he called Andrew who then went off and brought Peter to see for himself.  Similarly, Jesus called Philip who then found Nathaniel.  Notice how in each case some knowledge of the faith history (the Old Testament Scriptures) is assumed.  Andrew tells Peter "we have found the Messiah", but does not have to explain to Peter what he means by that.  Peter knows they are expecting the Messiah to come sometime.    Similarly, Philip talks about "the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the Prophets also wrote".  Presumably, Nathaniel understands what he is talking about, even though he is temporarily blinded by his prejudice against Nazareth (think Auckland here!).  Nathaniel has been sitting under a fig tree – a favoured spot for prayer and Scriptural study because of the shade it gave from the heat of the sun.  Nathaniel acclaims Jesus as Son of God and King of Israel, two terms that reappear in the Passion story – both as praise and in mockery.  Notice, too, the repeat of this theme of heaven being open; and this reference to Jacob's ladder.  Recall the punch-line to that story: "Surely the Lord is in this place and I was not aware of it."

Taking It Personally.

·     Our place of origin seems important in this story.  Where are you from?  How has that influenced the course of your life?  Has it been an advantage or a drawback?  Have you ever experienced prejudice against people from your hometown?  Do you hold any animosity towards any other "hometown" in the way that Nathaniel did?

·     On meeting Christ yourself, did you feel an urge to find someone you knew and bring them to Jesus?  Do you have such an urge now?

·     This is a good story for praying with your imagination.  Place yourself near Philip.  Listen as Jesus calls Philip to follow him.  How do you feel?  Excited?  Fearful?  Do you hope that he will now turn to you and call you, too?  Are you trying to attract his attention or make yourself invisible?  Why?

·     Spend some time in prayer pondering the call of Christ in your life and your response to that call, past, present, and future.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

January 8 NOTES FOR REFLECTION The Baptism of the Lord

January 8                                NOTES FOR REFLECTION                   The Baptism of the Lord

Texts:   Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

Theme:  I'm tempted to suggest "How Time Flies!", as two weeks after celebrating Christ's birth, we meet him as a thirty-year-old.  However, I suggest we stick with "Revelation in Baptism", to stress that our readings between Christmas and Candlemas are primarily about the revelation of Christ.

Introduction.  For Mark, Jesus' story begins with his baptism.  He has no birth narrative, and nothing like the wonder of John's Prologue revealing the eternal existence of Christ.  For this reason, perhaps, our first lesson comprises the opening few verses of Genesis.  The beginning of the old creation forms the background to the beginning of the new.  The common element is the creative power of the Holy Spirit, brooding over the primal waters and bringing order out of chaos; and descending like a dove on to Jesus as he emerges from the new waters of baptism.  Our second lesson, from the Book of Acts puts even greater emphasis on the creative work of the Holy Spirit, bringing the gift of speaking in new languages, and separating it from the immersion in water that is the symbolic act of baptism.

Background.    Advent-Candlemas can be a confusing period for those of us who are used to stories with a strict chronology.  Advent begins with a focus on the return of Christ at the end of the age.  Then we "walk backwards to Christmas", in the words of the famous song. We focus on John the Baptist, and then on the Annunciation.  The prophet of Isaiah is the other great character of Advent, some 700 years before the time of Mary, John and Jesus.

Now we celebrate the Epiphany on 6 January when the magi bring their strange prophetic gifts to the infant child; and two days later we witness Jesus' baptism at the age of 30.  Which reminds me: our Lectionary is very clear about the equal importance of both these events.  In each case we are told: "This is a principal feast and should not be displaced by any other celebration."  Quite how we are to do due honour to two major feats two days apart is not explained (yes, I know we could have weekday services, but let's be practical here!)  The task is, perhaps, to find a way of celebrating both feasts together.  Part of my solution at St John's, Waikouaiti this year is to choose all the hymns with an Epiphany flavour, while sticking to the Baptism for the readings and preaching.

Back to the issue of chronological time.  One thought is that the creators of our church year are deliberately disregarding the principles of chronology to stress that, when the eternal decides to invade the temporal, chronology flies out the window.  More theologically, for the eternal God there is only the eternal NOW.  (All things 'happen' for God simultaneously.)  No, this doesn't make immediate sense to us because we are inescapably children of the time-space continuum.   The challenge is to accept that God is free of all that – that is what we mean when we say God is e-ternal (outside of time.)

So back to the idea of "revelation" as the central theme of this period of our church year. That motif, of course, begins with the birth announcement by the angel (and backing singers) to the shepherds.  What, exactly, is revealed to them?  In the end, I suspect, very little.  When they hurry off to Bethlehem to see for themselves, they find Mary, Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.   According to the angel, the sign to them was to be precisely that: they would find a baby (wrapped in cloths) and lying in a manger.  As we read St Luke's account of all this, it's hard to avoid the suspicion that what really amazed the shepherds is that they found things exactly as the angel had foreseen.  It is the marvel of a man who has just seen a magician perform the very trick he said he would do.  But beyond that, is there any real evidence that the shepherds comprehended the enormity of this birth?  Had they any real grasp of who this child really is?

Something similar may be going on with the strange story we know as the Epiphany.  The psalmist talks of the heavens proclaiming the glory of God; and St Paul makes much (in the early stages of his Letter to the Romans) about creation revealing God's existence to those who had not yet heard the message of salvation.  So part of this story may be drawing on that idea, that the heavens (through this one itinerant star) are proclaiming the glory of Christ.  A further idea is that it may have been aimed at those who believed in what we  today know as astrology: that whatever power and authority heavenly bodies may be thought to have, they are mere pointers to the one who is higher than them all.

Coming to the baptism, a good question to ask is not so much, what was revealed, but to whom?  This is one of those rare cases where it really is helpful to compare the different versions in the 4 gospels, and to note the subtle and not so subtle differences.  In particular, who (besides Jesus, of course, saw or heard anything out of the ordinary?  Was it an objective event, which could have been witnessed by anyone who happened to be there at the time; or was it a purely subjective experience for Jesus alone?  St Matthew splits his vote two to one.  "At that moment heaven was opened" (objective); "he saw the Spirit of God descending" (subjective); and "a voice from heaven said, 'this is my Son" (objective).

Mark is almost wholly in the subjective camp.  "...he saw heaven being torn open" (subjective) "and the Spirit descending on him" (subjective); "and a voice came from heaven" (objective); "You are my Son" (subjective").  St Luke leans the other way. "...heaven was opened" (objective); "the Holy Spirit descended on him" (objective); "a voice came from heaven" (objective); "you are my Son" (subjective).

Then there is St John.  He does not directly report Jesus' baptism.  Instead, he has John the Baptist say of Jesus: "I saw the Holy Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.  I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptise with water told me, 'The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit."  So John the Baptist saw what was happening, but whether or not he heard the voice from heaven, we do not know.

Where does all this get us?  For my money the revelation through baptism was primarily for Jesus: a precious confirmation that he is whom he had come to believe himself to be, the Messiah, the beloved Son of God.

Genesis.  The opening chapter of Genesis is in the form of a hymn of praise.  It has a wonderful depth and richness to it that can only be cheapened by silly arguments about creation and evolution.   The truth with which we are concerned here is not the "what" but the "by whom" question.  And, perhaps, also the "why" question.  Later theologians insisted that God created all things "ex nihilo".  This indicates that the second verse must succeed the first in time, not expand it.  First, God created the heavens and the earth.  When first created the earth was formless and empty.  When first created the earth had areas of water (or, perhaps, the whole earth was covered with water); there was only darkness (no light); and the Spirit of God was hovering (or brooding) over the waters.  The image suggests a hen incubating her eggs – the symbol of the beginning of life.  The next thing that God did was to create light.  Without light there could be no life.  (Recall how St John explores this idea in the Prologue to his gospel.)  God saw that the light was good, and he separated it from darkness.  [Light is good, darkness is not.]  Notice that for the Hebrews the day started with evening: darkness is overcome by the dawn.  We tend to think in the reverse: we start with dawn, and the light gives way to darkness.

Taking It Personally.

  • Can you recall a time of emptiness, chaos and darkness in your life?  Can you now imagine the Spirit of God hovering over that situation, seeking to bring light and life into it?
  • Can you draw on this idea next time you find yourself in troubling circumstances?  Try a simple prayer of invocation such as, "Spirit of God, hover over this situation now and bring light and life into it, I pray."
  • Sit in a dark room for a little while.  Then turn on a light.  Appreciate the difference between the light and darkness.  Give thanks to God for light, and for the gift of sight.

Acts.  This is an intriguing little story that may have all sorts of political sub-plots.  We know from the gospels that the relationship between Jesus' disciples and those of John the Baptist was sometimes tense.  This episode may be designed by the early church to make it clear that John's ministry in itself was not sufficient: his baptism was likewise only half what was required.  It needed to be completed by Jesus' ministry.  Or it may have something to do with the argument that "real" Christians spoke in tongues or uttered words of prophesy – an argument that was sometimes heard during the heyday of the Charismatic Renewal in the seventies and eighties.  Two points here.  First, in separating the water baptism from the laying on of hands and the anointing with the Spirit, the way was cleared (no doubt, inadvertently) for the development of the idea of Confirmation.  Secondly, the suggestion that they were then baptised into the name of the Lord Jesus would seem to be at odds with the very clear instruction in St Matthew's gospel to baptise in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Taking It Personally.

  • Never let a chance go by to reflect on your own baptism.  Read the liturgy in the prayer book.  Notice the invocation of the Holy Spirit over the waters of the font.  Notice, too, St Peter's promise that all who are baptised will receive the Holy Spirit.  That includes you!
  • In what way would your life have been different if you had not been baptised?

Mark.  A couple of Old Testament echoes strike me here.  First, the idea of heaven being torn open seems to hark back to the plaintive cry of Isaiah (64:1).  Secondly, the dove brings to mind the one released by Noah from the ark, which returned with an olive leaf in its mouth.  The baptism of the earth for the removal of sin was over: a symbol of peace symbolised a new start.  See also 1 Peter 3:18-22.

Taking It Personally.

  • Imagine that this is your baptism.  The Holy Spirit descends on you and remains.  And you hear words spoken to you from heaven: "You are my son/daughter, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."  Repeat those words to yourself over and over again until you begin to believe them.  Then rejoice and give thanks.